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A View from Missouri

Demographic Trends and Data


In 1990 immigrants made up 2% of Missouri’s total population.  That percentage grew to 3% in 2000, and to 4% in 2010.

The figures below compare the share of the immigrant population in Missouri compared with other states in the Midwest., and the growth  of that population between 1990 and 2010.



Since the beginning of FY 2000, Missouri has hosted 13,814 refugees from 48 countries.   Over the past decade (FY 2000-2011), the top five countries of origin for refugees arriving to the state include the former Yugoslavia   (3,725) (mainly Bosnian Muslims), Somalia (1,900), Burma (mainly ethnic Karen and Chin) (1,198), and Iraq (1, 067).   Nationals of Cuba and the former Soviet Union  have also come to Missouri in significant numbers over the past ten years, with 823 and 814 arrivals respectively.   In recent years, the fastest growing refugee countries of origin have been Burma and Bhutan.   The flow of refugees from Cuba, Somalia, and Sudan has remained relatively constant, while arrivals from the Former Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, and Vietnam have declined steadily.   Between FY 2006 and 2009, an average of 55 asylees also settled in Missouri each year.

As of FY 2010, refugees constituted roughly 5.5% of the state’s total foreign-born population.  This is more than triple the national proportion of refugee arrivals in the past ten years as a percentage of total foreign-born (1.7%).   More importantly, while the number of refugees in Missouri is small compared with the total number of foreign-born, they remain a significant minority in terms of the overall vitality of the state. In major cities such as St. Louis, where the proportion of refugees to foreign-born is much higher , refugees have been critical in reinvigorating the local economy and mitigating population decline.  For much of the 1980s, St. Louis was actually facing a decrease in its total foreign-born population.   This trend reversed in the 1990s, due in large part to the arrival of a large number of Bosnian refugees.

Some of the main resettlement agencies operating in the state today include: International Institute of Metropolitan St. Louis (St. Louis); Catholic Charities Refugee Services at St. Agnes Apartment (St. Louis); Diocese of Jefferson City (Jefferson City), and  Jewish Vocational Service (Kansas City).   Although St. Louis and Kansas City have served as the primary resettlement hubs for refugees arriving in Missouri, a growing number are resettling in other parts of the state.   Additionally, many refugee families engage in “secondary migration,” moving from large metropolitan areas to smaller cities and towns.


The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the proportion of undocumented immigrants, as a share of the total population of Missouri, has nearly quadrupled between 1990 and 2010, though the proportion of undocumented persons remains very  small. It is important to emphasize that these numbers are only broad estimates. The actual numbers may be quite different. The figure below compares the estimated percent of the total population that is undocumented in Missouri among the 12 Midwestern states and the United States.


Four and a half percent of the population in St. Louis suburbs were foreign-born in 2010, compared with 5% of urban and 1.3% of rural residents. Between 2000 and 2010 the population increased most in urban and suburban areas.

An examination of data on all of the immigrants living in metropolitan areas in Missouri demonstrates that the majority live in St. Louis (44%) and Kansas City (54%).  The Springfield metropolitan area saw its share of foreign-born residents increase less than 1% between 2000 and 2010.


In Missouri, and across the region in 2010 a larger percentage of immigrants (59%) than US-born residents (50%) were currently married.   Not surprisingly, the total household size of the foreign-born was also larger—3 individuals, compared with 2.45 for the native-born.  Household members can be either relatives, or unrelated individuals.


Immigration History

The first wave of foreign-born immigrants began arriving in Missouri during the 1830s. These immigrants were primarily from Germany and Ireland, and settled along the Missouri River, west of St. Louis to farm. In 1861, more than 15 percent of the state’s population was foreign-born. By the turn of the 20th century, in addition to Germans and Irish, there were firmly established Italian, Greek, Polish, and Eastern European Jewish immigrant communities as well.

Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, Missouri experienced a great demographic and industrial transformation. What had once been a region heavily reliant on agriculture gradually shifted to one concentrated on manufacturing. As a result, the state’s rural population plummeted by 40 percent between 1900 and 1970. Yet this was more a result of out-state migration than urbanization, as the populations of Missouri’s two biggest metropolitan areas, St. Louis and Kansas City, both shrank during this same period. This effectively staunched the flow of foreign immigration for much of the 20th century.

During the wars in the former Yugoslav Republic in the 1990s, many Bosnian refugees came to Missouri. By the end of the conflicts, there were an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Bosnians living in the state. During the following decade, Hispanic immigrants, hailing predominantly from Mexico, began arriving in Missouri as well. Hispanics are now the second-largest immigrant group in the state, after Asians. The Asian population in the state is quite diverse, with significant foreign-born Indian and Vietnamese communities, primarily in St. Louis and Kansas City.


In its simplest form ‘immigrant assimilation’ refers to a process whereby, over time, immigrants become indistinguishable from native-born residents.  This process is neither one-way, nor linear, and not all changes lead to improved status.  It also ignores the myriad ways in which native-born residents are influenced by immigrants.

To the general public two of the most visible markers of assimilation are language proficiency and socio-economic status.  Clusters of poor, ethnically or racially distinct foreign-born residents with low levels of schooling and English proficiency perpetuate perceptions of difference and foster the impression that contemporary immigrants are not assimilating as quickly as white Europeans who came to the US at the beginning of the 20th century.  Unfortunately, such perceptions are rarely accompanied by analyses of barriers to assimilation, or support for programs that might accelerate the integration of new immigrants.

Differences in such measures as English language ability, home ownership and income depend upon much more than whether an individual was born outside or inside of the US.  There are important differences in the ease of assimilation that depend upon the age and skill level that an immigrant has when he or she enters the country, and the kinds of opportunities that are available after arrival.  It is important to keep these factors in mind when comparing the experiences of immigrants in various states or regions of the US.


The general public often perceives immigrants to be concentrated in low-level jobs, but in actuality immigrant workers are fairly well dispersed across the skills spectrum; the most rapid growth in the employment of immigrants since 2000 has been in middle-skilled jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree.  However the greatest increase in projected numbers of new jobs are in those that require low-levels of education and training.  Between 1990 and 2006 the share of immigrant workers in each of the four employment sectors increased dramatically and outpaced the increase in native-born workers’ jobs in rate of increase, but not in absolute numbers, with the exception of construction.

Median earnings for the foreign-born and native-born in Missouri are shown below for 2010, and then median earnings of the foreign-born are further stratified by period of entry.  It can be noted that the foreign-born who arrived in the earlier waves before 1990, or between 1990 and 2000, have higher median earnings than those who have arrived more recently.


In 2006 46% of foreign-born workers earned “family-sustaining wages,” compared to 59% of native-born workers. The percentages of foreign-born and native-born living below 100% of the Poverty Level in Missouri are shown below for 2010.

One indication of assimilation over time is that the poverty rate for naturalized citizens was considerably lower than that for non-citizens, and even lower than that for native-born citizens.  Because immigrants must be legal permanent residents for at least five years before naturalizing, the income difference may indicate that incomes are improving over time. It could also be the result of a “self-selection” effect, whereby those individuals who elect to become citizens, and who learn enough English and civics to pass the citizenship test are also those who will achieve some economic success.  It is likely that both factors are at work.

Immigrants who were born in Asia and Europe had considerably higher mean incomes than those born in Latin America (not shown).
Business ownership is most often reported for different racial/ethnic groups, rather than for immigrants and non-immigrants. In 2010 Asians constituted 1.6% of the population in Missouri, and owned a similar percentage of businesses in the state (1.9%).  In contrast, the proportion of Hispanic-owned businesses were much less than their share of the population.


Although the percentages of Missouri businesses owned by US- or foreign-born Asians and Hispanics are small, they account for 9,752 and 6,178 firms respectively.   The positive impact of immigrant integration into the business sector in Missouri is additionally indicated by 2007 combined sales and receipts of $5.1 billion, and combined employment of 34,856.


Asians and Hispanics/Latinos have rates of home ownership that are similar to those in other Midwest states.  In the 2007 American Community Survey, the percentage of all Hispanics (foreign-born and native-born) who were homeowners was 34%. Of the entire Asian population in Missouri, 58% were homeowners.


Immigrants in Missouri, and throughout the Midwest, had both higher and lower levels of education than native-born residents in 2010.  By this we mean that they were both much more likely to have less than a high school diploma, and slightly more likely to have a graduate or professional degree. Educational attainment is a very important dimension of integration, as it is strongly related to other dimensions of integration such as income and English language proficiency.  Nationally and in the Midwest, the children of immigrants tend to achieve higher levels of education than their parents,  although Caucasian and Asian youth go further in school than do Hispanics (or African Americans, few of whom are foreign-born).

In Missouri, graduation rates were lower for Hispanic students (foreign-born and native-born combined) than for their Caucasian and Asian peers.

Similarly, the Hispanic dropout rate in Missouri in the 2007-2008 school year (7.2%) was over two times that of White students (3.2%) and Asian students (2.7%).

State testing data has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the connection between measures of student performance and federal funding levels. However, if the data can be believed, state tests in Missouri leave some room for optimism regarding improved student performance. According to the U.S. Department of Education, grade 8 students from all racial and ethnic groups demonstrated improved scores on state assessments of math and reading between 2004-05 and 2009-10, with an all-student increase of 42% in math and 20% in reading. The scores for Hispanic students went up at higher rates than these state-wide averages.


Despite the challenges facing Hispanic students, national data show that second generation immigrants exceed their parents’ education levels.


English Proficiency is collected by self-report in the Census and American Community Survey.  Respondents can respond that they do not speak English, speak English only, or speak another language in addition to English.  This final group is then divided further as they indicate how well they speak English as either “Very well,” “Well,” or “Not well.”  The chart below compares English Proficiency in the foreign-born population, showing the percent of the foreign-born who identified themselves as speaking English “Well,” “Very Well,” or as their native/only language.  There was a slight, but non-significant increase in the percentage of those speaking English well or better from 2000 to 2010; small levels of  change may be due to sampling error.

In 2010 80% of immigrants spoke English well, very well or fluently.

Levels of English language learning vary significantly within and between immigrant groups. More important than country of origin are the age at which an individual entered the US,  his or her level of education and literacy in the native language.  In Missouri, 6% of the total state population spoke a language other than English at home in 2010,  and 2% of the total population spoke English less than very well.   One percent of households were linguistically isolated (meaning that all members of the household age 14 and over were limited English proficient).

The percentage of foreign-born residents who are limited English proficient (LEP) has remained lower than th enational average over the years.

As would be expected, the children of immigrants in Missouri speak English at a much higher average rate than the total population of foreign-born in the state.


Similarly, immigrants who have naturalized as U.S. citizens (and who are likely to have been in the country longer) have lower rates of LEP than noncitizens.

Linguistic integration, like other measures of integration, varies among different immigrant groups. Among the foreign-born ages 5 and older in Missouri in 2009, those who spoke Spanish at home had the highest percent LEP, compared to speakers of Asian and Pacific, Indo-European, or other languages at home.

Though Hispanics in Missouri and across the Midwest are more likely to be LEP than other groups, national data show that, in comparison to predominantly white, European immigrants from the early 20th Century, contemporary Hispanic and Latino immigrants learn English at faster rates  within the first five years of arrival in the United States.   The same is true for the population of immigrants who arrived in the country between 1980 and 2000.


One of the clearest measures of integration is the rate at which immigrants become naturalized citizens of the United States. Naturalization not only means becoming an American citizen, but generally also requires a modest demonstration of knowledge of American civics, history and basic English language skills. In Missouri, 43% of all immigrants were naturalized citizens in 2010.   Of immigrants in Missouri who entered the United States before 1980, 82% were citizens in 2009, slightly higher than the national average (79%).

Not surprisingly, immigrants who have been in the country the longest are most likely to naturalize.

The figure below compares the share of the immigrant population in Missouri and other states in the Midwest in 2010.


In the 2008 elections, 2% of registered voters in Missouri were naturalized citizens or the U.S.-born children of immigrants. This proportion of the voting population is bound to rise, considering that the foreign-born voting-eligible population increased by 29% from 2000-2006,  and that 84% of children with immigrant parents in Missouri were U.S. citizens in 2009.

As of 2012, however, representation of ethnic minorities among elected officials in Missouri remains disproportionately low relative to their share of the population; while 3.5% of the total population is Hispanic,  only 2% of state legislators are ethnically Hispanic, and no state legislators  are Asian, though Asians represent 1.6% of the total population.


Tomas Jiminez explained the value of intermarriage as an indication of integration by saying, “When individuals marry each other without regard to ethno-racial or national origin, it indicates that the social boundaries between groups are highly permeable.” Jiminez also highlighted the interconnection of various integration measures by pointing out that intermarriage rates are determined, in part, by English language acquisition and socioeconomic status, which shape opportunities to interact with those of different ethnic or national origins.

Data on inter-marriages between immigrants and native-born residents is not available, but between 2008 and 2010, 11% of all marriages in Missouri were interracial or interethnic. While lower than the national average of 15%, this figure is equal to the Midwest average.



14 bills concerning immigration issues have been enacted in Missouri since 2008. The state constitution was also amended in 2008 to make English the official language for all government meetings.


2011 – Unemployment Compensation (MO H 163). This bill declares unlawfully present aliens ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. It also requires aliens to provide documentation of their immigration status when applying for unemployment benefits.

2011 – Human Trafficking (MO H 214). This bill requires that victims of human trafficking be provided interpretation and translation services, as needed.

2011 – State Education Agency Appropriations (MO H 2). This budget bill included funding for the Refugee Children School Impacts Grants Program. The program provides English language instruction, after-school tutorials, high school completion resources, parental involvement programs, bilingual and bicultural counselors, and interpreter services to school age children and their families.

2009 – Homeland Security (MO H 124). This bill requires the Joint Committee on Terrorism, Bioterrorism, and Homeland Security to study the feasibility of including data on immigration enforcement in their reports.

2009 – Licensure and Mental Health Coverage (MO S 296). This bill requires applicants for licensure as a marital and family therapist to provide documentation of U.S. citizenship or legal immigration status.

2009 – Drivers License Applicant Privacy (MO H 361). This law prohibits the Missouri Department of Revenue from complying with the REAL ID Act. It also restricts drivers licenses to Missouri citizens and residents with lawful immigration status.

2009 – Unlawfully Present Aliens (MO H 390). This bill prohibits students who are unlawfully present from receiving certain types of financial aid. The act also specifies that the requirement for certain businesses to participate in a federal work authorization program will no longer apply if the federal government discontinues or fails to implement the program.


2011 – Expenses, Grants, Refunds, and Distributions (MO H 10). This bill would have provided funding for refugees and legal immigrants to receive naturalization assistance. The provision was line-item vetoed by the governor.

2009 – Funding of State Departments. (MO H 10). This budget bill would have provided funding for naturalization assistance to refugees and legal immigrants who are unable to attend classroom instruction, require special assistance to complete citizenship requirements, and who have resided in Missouri for at least five years. The provision was line-item vetoed by the governor.


In June 2012, the St. Louis Regional Immigration and Innovation initiative was launched.  St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley appointed an 18-member diverse steering committee of regional business, civic, economic development, and academic leaders.  The committee will analyze the effects of immigration on the St. Louis region and build support for local recommendations to attract, support, and ultimately retain new citizens to spur growth and secure the economic future of St. Louis.

Labor Force Data

The proportion of immigrants in the US labor force almost doubled between 1990 and 2010—from 9 to 16 percent, at a time when the percentage of native-born workers decreased from 91 to 84 percent.  Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it grew at a rate that was seven times faster rate than that for the native-born workforce.
Thirty-seven percent of immigrant workers in Missouri were born in Asia, and 31percent are from Latin America.


Immigrant workers in the state make up a smaller percentage of the labor force than in the US as a whole.

The top industries employing immigrants and US-born workers in Missouri in the state are similar, although foreign-born workers are more likely to work in arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services, and are not heavily employed in retail trade.

Missouri had a higher state-wide unemployment rate in January of 2011 than eleven other states in the Midwest.  Immigrants in the construction industry (not shown) were particularly hard-hit.


In spite of the recession, demand for immigrant workers continued, and the percentage of foreign-born civilian workers increased by 50% in Missouri and by 40% nationally from 2000-2009.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increased need for workers in a variety of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, several of which have a shortage of US-born workers.


Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it is growing at a much faster rate than the native-born workforce.

The foreign-born workforce in Missouri grew while the native-born labor force decreased over the period from 1990 to 2010.



Missouri has a small, but growing foreign-born population.  Continued  increases in the foreign-born work force  key to the future prosperity of the state and the Midwest region.

The most dramatic demographic shift in the United States today is the aging of the population—a development that increases the tax burden on young workers who make payroll contributions to cover the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Aging has been accelerated by the out-migration of young native-born workers, a phenomenon that Rogerson and Kim aptly call “the emptying of the Bread Basket of its breadwinners.”  A steady influx of immigrant workers is essential to maintaining a young and productive work force

Who's Involved

  • Bob Fox, Founder, Newspace, Inc.

    Fox founded NewSpace Inc. in 1984, which introduced the residential closet organizing business to the St. Louis region. Today, NewSpace is also a full-service contract furniture dealer and makes fixtures for the retail trade. In 2009, recognizing a great need, Fox founded Casa de Salud, a health and wellness center serving Hispanic immigrants, where he serves as chair of the board.  He also serves as chair of the board of InspireSTL, is on the board of trustees of Saint Louis University, and the Saint Louis Zoo Foundation board. He was awarded both the prestigious St. Louis Award and the Jane and Whitney Harris Community Service Award in 2011 for his outstanding contributions to the St. Louis Community. This year he was honored with the Global Ambassador Award from the World Trade Center of St. Louis for his work on forming a regional taskforce on immigration.

  • Bob Holden, Former Governor, Missouri

    From 2001 until 2005, Bob Holden served as governor of the state of Missouri. He presently serves as Chairman of the Midwest-U.S. China Association (MWCA), a non-profit, non-partisan organization that encourages commerce between 12 states in the Midwestern United States and China. Governor Holden’s interest in international trade and in fostering economic bonds between the Midwest United States and the international business communities is also reflected in his leadership of the Holden Public Policy Forum at Webster University, where he lectures as a visiting professor.



  • Jim Anderson – Vice President, Marketing – Public Affairs, CoxHealth
  • Deborah Cohen, Ph.D. – Associate Professor of History/ Director of Graduate Studies, University of Missouri-St. Louis
  • Anna Crosslin – President and CEO, International Institute
  • Lisette Dennis
  • Susanne Evens – CEO, AAA Translation
  • Rebecca Feldman – Immigration Law Project
  • Sylvie Le Bouthillier – President, Global Briefcase
  • Kim Allen Murray – Managing Attorney, Immigration Law Project
  • Tim Nowak – Executive Director, World Trade Center St. Louis
  • Professional Latino Action Network (PLAN)
  • St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America
  • St. Louis Mosaic Project
  • Mark I. Sutherland – President, Dunrobin Publishing
  • Aruna Tailor – Immigration Law Project
  • Mark Tranel – Director, Public Policy Research Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis
  • Charles Turnell – Owner, Tuca Harbor, Inc.
  • Timothy M. Wolfe – President, University of Missouri System

State Events

To engage a broad community of Midwesterners in a conversation about immigration the “Task Force on Immigration and U.S. Economic Competitiveness: A View from the Midwest” has gone on the road to learn more about the immigrant communities throughout the region. The forums highlighted how immigrants contribute to local economies and the integration challenges local communities are facing, among other issues. 8 forums were held in the late summer and early fall. Local leaders participated. The diverse canvas of immigrant communities and local issues was put on full display. Moderated by Governor Bob Holden, Founder, The Holden Public Policy Forum at Webster University and Former Governor of Missouri. 
In collaboration with the Immigration and Innovation Steering Committee, the Holden Public Policy Forum at Webster University, FOCUS St. Louis, and ImmigrationWorks, USA.